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My Time at London's 'School of Jihadis'

Before Britain's right-wing press gave my alma mater a nickname because six former students have joined the Islamic State, it was a notoriously dangerous public school.
October 28, 2014, 11:30am

The author during his time at Holland Park School

I often dream that I'm back at Holland Park School-and nearly always wake up in a cold sweat.

Knife fights in the playground. Fistfights in the classroom. Teachers scared stiff of their students. The scent of cheap weed drifting in from the halls and up the stairwells. The distant echo of Marxist rants from our beloved headmaster at morning assembly. Everything that characterized my time there as a student between 1982 and 1988 comes rushing back, and for whatever reason my dormant brain often doesn't like it.

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Waking from that recurring dream recently, I saw a Daily Mail article being shared among some HPS alumni-a story about the institution that taught me the differences between "there" and "their" morphing into the "School of Jihadis."

Six former students had been linked to Islamic State combatants overseas. Three of them were killed fighting in Syria; one girl was convicted of smuggling funds for terrorists; another girl had been tricked into smuggling cash in her underwear; and the sixth is now thought to be in Syria working with the jihadis.

So six ex-students linked to Islamic extremism make my alma mater the School of Jihad? I laughed, but not for long. Britain's right-wing gutter press has always had it in for my old school: In the 1970s they called it the "commie-prehensive," and the name has popped up in plenty of not-too-complimentary stories about former students.

One guy I used to smoke weed with during break times, for example, was part of a gang that tried to rob £40 million worth ($64.5 million) of gold bullion from a cargo warehouse at Heathrow Airport in 2004. While awaiting trial he had the dubious honor of sharing a cell block with both hate cleric Abu Hamza and the Islamic extremists who'd been busted by MI5 for plotting to blow up the Ministry of Sound nightclub.

But can a radical school make you a radical person, left, right, or wrong? Yes. That was the whole point of Holland Park, dubbed "the Eton of the comprehensives" in the 1980s, the decade when politicians stopped sending their adolescent offspring there because it was definitely nothing like Eton. (Note for Americans: A "comprehensive" is basically equivalent to our public schools.) If you were educated at Eton, you might well end up head of a bank, or a law firm, or a country. If you attended Holland Park School, chances are you'd have more classmates heading for the jailhouse than for high-powered internship programs.

 Mohammad Nasser, a former student at Holland Park School, who was killed fighting for the Islamic State in June

So does the school-to-terrorism pipeline beat the traditional school-to-prison path?

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"I can't actually say it's a surprise," says author, journalistm and former student John-Paul Flintoff, who wrote about his experiences of the school in his 1998 memoir Comp. "Because all these 'jihadis' had to come from somewhere, and why not Holland Park School?"

So what makes HPS so notorious? Time for a brief history lesson. The school opened its doors in September 1958, beginning life with optimism and an egalitarian ethos. Streaming and uniforms were abolished, classes were mixed ability, relations with teachers were informal, and corporal punishment was absent. It was the flagship agnostic, left-wing "comp," and every bit as good as a fee-paying equivalent, smack-bang in the middle of posh Kensington and Chelsea.

The class system was assumed to be broken. We were all equals. Labor politicians and bohemian celebrities sent their children there, as did bus drivers and cleaning ladies. Holland Park was (and is) multicultural-60 percent of students come from a wide range of nonwhite ethnic backgrounds and speak English as a second language. But between the 70s and 90s, its academic standards slipped, its reputation faded, and posh parents began sending their kids to private schools again.

That was around the time I showed up. In fact, when I arrived you could say the school was at its very worst: With 2,000 students, HPS was a large, hostile campus riven by conflict. Students got stabbed and slashed, and physical fights with teachers were relatively frequent-one girl in my grade got into it with three teachers in one day. Another time, our math teacher completely lost it and dove for one of the girls in my class. My friends and I rushed him, and I got punched in the mouth.

Holland Park School in the 1970s

With no school uniform, labels became king. Many students walked around in designer gear and expensive sneakers-some to their own detriment. I witnessed one kid robbed of his Fila tracksuit and Diadora sneakers in the playground, left to stand there in just a T-shirt and underpants.

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This kind of thing went on for a good decade or so, but after record truancy rates in the 1990s and damning reports by Oftsed (the government body that inspects schools), "super head" Colin Hall was appointed in 2001 to turn the place around. He shook up the curriculum and took the school back to basics. Uniforms returned.

Ofsted liked what it saw and praised the school in a glowing 2011 report. The old building was razed to the ground to make way for an £80 million ($129 million) architectural carbuncle that resembles a supermax prison. And by stealthy yet official intent, the flagship comprehensive was turned into a new-style academy in 2013.

Thorpe Lodge, a historical building that stands on the school's grounds 

The recent "School of Jihadis" controversy has threatened to usurp this turnaround status, but it's something that should be considered in context. Holland Park School has always been a microcosm of life in modern Britain, and extremism is sadly just one part of that. A fringe element, perhaps, but a noticeable one all the same. And it's not like the school itself is responsible-from day one it's been an institution that's set out to define itself with a series of highly laudable aims.

We were one of the first schools in the UK to have anti-racist and anti-sexist policies. We were progressive-politically correct before political correctness even existed-and we knew it.

So what's the great lesson to be learned from all of this? Then, as now, Holland Park School is trapped between the dreams of parents, teachers, and an increasingly grim mix of social, racial, and secular realities. I left the Eton of Jihadis with no qualifications, having to eventually pick them up elsewhere. But I did learn a few things: That 28 grams make up an ounce, that LSD stands for lysergic acid diethylamide, and that despite our cultural differences, we are really all the same.

HPS taught me that we need to look past these details and learn to understand one another without recourse to fear or hate. And that's a lesson I'll never forget.